Chances are you’ve heard the term “eating disorder” before. You know it has to do with having a problem with food and eating, but maybe you are interested in learning more about what they are, what causes them, and how they affect people who suffer from them.
Eating disorders are serious and potentially life-threatening mental and physical conditions that involve a complex and damaging relationship with food. For example, a severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors accompanied by distressing thoughts and emotions. Indeed, eating disorders are frequently associated with preoccupations with food, weight, body shape, or with anxiety about eating and/or swallowing certain foods.
Eating disorders are not uncommon. Research suggests that 1 in 20 people will be affected by an eating disorder at some point or another in their lives that will usually develop in adolescence or young adulthood. Girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 35 are most often affected by them compared to boys or men. Indeed, 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. will have an eating disorder during their lifetime. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders have historically been associated with heterosexual, young, white females, but in reality, they affect people of all demographics of all ethnicities at similar rates. Misconceptions about who eating disorders affect have real consequences, leading to fewer diagnosis, treatment options, and pathways to help those who don’t fit the stereotype. People of color and members of other marginalized groups are significantly less likely to receive help for their eating disorders. To learn more about how eating disorders affect people of color and other marginalized groups, visit the Identity and Eating Disorder section of the NEDA website.
If you think that you, or someone you love, struggles with an eating disorder it’s important to remember that the more you learn about them, the better you understand how important it is to take them seriously.
What are the 3 main types of eating disorders?
Anorexia Nervosa – People with anorexia strictly restrict the number of calories and the type of foods they eat. They also tend to exercise excessively, purge with laxatives and by vomiting, and/or binge eat.
Bulimia Nervosa – Bulimia is very serious because it is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of binging and self-induced vomiting aimed at compensating for the effects of binge eating.
Binge Eating Disorder – This is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food in a short period of time until feelings of complete fullness. People with this disorder usually experience a sense of loss of control during the binge. They also feel ashamed, distressed, and guilty after the episode. Sometimes, purging is used to counter binge eating. This potentially life-threatening eating disorder is the most common one in the United States.
What causes eating disorders?
There’s no one specific cause of eating disorders. But research has found the following are factors:
- Genetic/biological (e.g. having a relative with an eating or mental health disorder)
- Psychological (e.g. perfectionism, poor body image and self-confidence, personal history with an anxiety disorder)
- Social (e.g. weight stigma, dieting at a young age, playing sports or activities that are weight focused, teasing or bullying, social isolation)
These factors can interact differently in different people, so two people with the same eating disorder can have very different experiences and symptoms.
How serious are they?
It is important to remember that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. They are not just a “phase” that will pass. They are not a choice. They’re a true medical and mental health illness that requires caring, compassionate, yet immediate attention.
Health Consequences of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders can lead to a multitude of serious health problems that can be life-threatening, such as:
Cardiovascular system: drops in blood pressure leading to risks of heart failure; drops in potassium levels leading to risks of irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and death
Gastrointestinal system: fluctuations in blood sugar levels/ diabetes, severe damage to stomach and esophagus, and blocked intestines
Neurological: seizures, muscle cramps, fainting, and dizziness
Endocrine system: hormonal imbalance leading to a total absence of menstruation, high cholesterol levels
Developmental: delay in puberty, delay, absence, or irregularity of menstruation, delayed growth
Emotional: feelings of loss of control, anxiety, helplessness, poor body image, and self-esteem; feeling sad, hopelessness, mood swings, and self harm.
Other: severe dehydration, feeling tired and weak, dizziness, feeling faint, kidney failure, anemia, infections, disturbances in sleep, use of substances like alcohol and drugs
Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder
- You struggle to eat in front of others.
- You develop rituals based around eating.
- You’re losing and gaining weight rapidly.
- You’re experiencing body dysmorphia defined by an obsession with perceived flaws in your physical appearance.
- You’re constantly eliminating food groups or experimenting with new diet trends.
- You struggle to stay warm, even when it’s hot outside.
- Your stomach constantly hurts.
If after reading the above sections you are wondering if you have an eating disorder, you may be asking yourself “What should I do next?”
How are Eating Disorders diagnosed?
Health care professionals diagnose eating disorders by performing an exam, evaluating symptoms and eating behaviors, and gathering information based on your history (height and weight progression). The medical professional may need to run other tests if other issues arise as a complication from the eating disorder and/or to see if there is another reason for the eating problems.
The first thing you can do is take the National Eating Disorder Association’s Eating Disorder Screening Tool. It is a short but great questionnaire appropriate for ages 13 and up that will help you determine if it’s time for you to reach out for help: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool
Eating disorders are pretty common in our thin-obsessed society, but unfortunately their importance is often minimized. This makes them very dangerous both physically and emotionally. Admitting to yourself that you may have an eating disorder may prove to be very challenging, but it is an absolute necessity for your long-term recovery. Recognizing there may be a problem takes strength and courage and you should be very proud of yourself for being brave enough to be honest with yourself. This is very commendable.
The next step you should take is to talk to trusted adults about your concerns so they can help you get the professional help you need. A professional specializing in eating disorders will explain to you that they are treatable. Treatment usually involves a combination of psychological and nutritional counseling, along with medical and psychiatric monitoring.
It is absolutely necessary that you reach out for help as soon as possible because eating disorders can potentially put your life in danger.
At the same time as you are reaching out for professional help, you can also consider reaching out for support online or by calling helplines. There are quite a few resources available to you that provide support with eating disorders:
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): Online chat and support through texting are also available. 1 (800) 931-2237 – NationalEatingDisorders.org
The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness: AllianceForEatingDisorders.com
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD): Eating Disorder Helpline: 1 (888) 375-7767 – ANAD.org
Eating Disorder Anonymous: EatingDisordersAnonymous.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline: 1 (800) 950-6264 or in crisis text “NAMI” to 741741
SAMHSA’s National Helpline: This helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, treatment referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance disorders – 1 (800) 662-4357
Teen Tribe: This website provides peer-to-peer group support for teens who go through challenging times. This is a free service. Support.TherapyTribe.com/teen-support-group/
ADAA Directory: This website allows teens and family members to search support groups in their local area, as well as phone or online groups. – ADAA.org/SupportGroups
Be an Ally: What should I do if a friend is struggling with an eating disorder?
Supporting someone you love who has an eating disorder can be a very challenging thing to do but also the greatest gift you can give them. Friends and family are often key to encouraging loved ones with eating and/or body image issues to seek help. Many individuals now in recovery from an eating disorder say the support of family and friends was crucial to them getting better.
Here are a few suggestions on how you can be a great ally to your friend or family member:
- Learn as much as you can about Eating Disorders – this will help you reason with your friend or loved one about inaccurate ideas that may be fueling their eating patterns.
- Make the time to talk to them and make sure you are in a place where you can talk privately.
- Be honest – talk openly and honestly about your concerns.
- Encourage them to talk to a trusted adult and/or seek professional help – give them a list of resources (see list above) and ask them if they want help making the first call or appointment.
- Remind them of why they want to get well – ask them about their goals, their projects, and their dreams. Help them reconnect with their values and who they want to be in the future.